Ecoreps working on a Native wildflower garden project on the Portland campus. Image courtesy of Aaron Witham

By: Zoe Bernardi, Community Editor

Each April, one of the main focuses of the month is the attention and care of the Earth, as April is Earth Month and Friday, Apr. 22 is Earth Day. The attention is spotlighting on the issues of climate change and the shift to a more sustainable way of life. Often looking at our own communities to see how our individual carbon footprint is adding up. Every year, Earth Month has a theme to unify the world as a whole. This year, according to, the theme is Invest in Our Planet, “how we take action on climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods… together, we must Invest In Our Planet.” 

A brief Earth Day (from,  dates back to the 1960s with the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962 by American marine biologist and conservationist, Rachel Carson. The book was able to “raise public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and the inextricable links between pollution and public health.” Then in 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson joined with local college students to rally for an anti-war protest that also led to more awareness on pollution and environmental issues.  Then activist Denis Hayes joined with Nelson to go on campus and landed on Apr. 22 as Earth Day. Since, “April 22, a weekday falling between Spring Break and Final Exams, to maximize the greatest student participation.” 

Now on USM campus, environmental sustainability works more than just the month of April. The Sustainability Office at USM and the Director of Sustainability Aaron Witham and has been making strides to lessen the pollution, carbon footprint and be more sustainable, with hopes of 2040 having USM be completely carbon neutral. “We want to go down 80% on our sustainability and reduce the energy we use on heat, transportation and electricity. The other 20% is unreachable without more technology in the world” Witham explains. But not to say that this month is event free, the Sustainability Office at USM has created a week of April Month celebrations. 

From Apr. 4, 2022 to May 1, 2022, the ongoing Sustainable Fit Commute Challenge for all USM campuses.  All students, staff, faculty, and friends are challenged to see how many times they can swap out driving for walking and biking on daily commutes and activities. At the end of the month the most miles walked will win prizes. On Apr. 20, all three locations of the USM Libraries hosted a free plant giveaway, and gave away free Native Plant Seed Bombs. Then on Apr. 21, Kappa Alpha Omicron hosted Aaron Witham, held an outdoor workshop entitled “Learning about wild plant identification and invasive species”. 

On Apr. 23, USM collaborated with the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District to host a regional event in the form of a 5k race. In order to “raise awareness about the ecological damage caused by untreated stormwater,” entitled, “Urban Runoff,” a play off the storm water run-offs that are detrimental to oceans and marine life. Witham explained storm water to be the water that comes after storms that then moves on the pavement and roads. “While it runs over these surfaces it picks up oils and chemicals and pollutants. It then condenses and as it goes to streams, small rivers and ponds and then into the oceans, it hurts the marine ecosystem.”  

However, USM has a plan to limit the amount of stormwater runoff that occurs on campus. Through education and spreading awareness on what can and can’t be placed down the drain, and ways to limit your own destruction. “Things like chemical cleaners cannot be poured down the drain, but washing your car in the driveway with chemical cleaners also affects the stormwater runoff.” 

Some things that USM does to help runoff is to use the landscape of the campus. “Creating catch basins that act as water filters. Rainwater will go into a basin like a large manhole, kinda like a big sock that’s like a filter, it holds to the containments,” says Witham. 

USM has been making strides for a cleaner campus and with the new construction on the Portland campus, trying to make all new buildings to be as sustainable as possible. “We are creating an American model of a Passive House, which uses 50% of heat compared to a normal house and is built very tightly, so it holds heat better, which makes it more energy sufficient,” said Witham. He continues with, “plus in terms of the pandemic, a passive house because it is built so tightly requires a lot of fresh air for circulation, so it will be a very healthy building to live in.” 

This building will also be certified Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certified (LEED), just like the new career and student success center. From the USM Sustainability webpage, it states LEED, “is a national certification system that ranks buildings on their levels of energy and resource efficiency.” Other current buildings that are LEED certified are: John Mitchel Center, Upperclass, the entire Lewiston-Auburn campus, the Gorham daycare ( near public safety), Abromson, the Osher map library and Wishcamper. 

To connect back to Wishcamper and its useful resources on reducing stormwater runoff, students might have noticed the strange divots in the grass in the walkway between Wishcamper, and Glickman library. “These are called swales, and they are used to collect water and filter it so it doesn’t move any further,” Witham says. He also states, “ The sidewalks around Wishcamper are made from pervious, and looks like asphalts, but the material absorbs the water and brings it directly into the ground, rather than into the street.” 

He also explains that the trees outside of Wishcamper are planted in a particular way to have tree wells and “ have an under the root system, with levels of special soil types, that allow water to collect under the tree and then in the roots and as it travels the different levels of soil act like filter and clean the water.” Like a filtration system in the trees.  

The last event for Earth week at USM is on Apr. 24 from 11:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m, and it’s a collaboration between, Bicycle Coalition of Maine and USM’s Office of Sustainability, called the Great Maine Bike Swaps. This year it will be at the Lewiston-Auburn campus. It has been happening for the past ten years, and allows people to both sell and donate old bikes, and for people to purchase much loved used bikes. “It helps people get more people on bikes, it’s a huge event and we sell 100’s of bikes and have thousands of people stop by. This year there will also be a second event in Gorham in June. 

“Outside of earth month we are trying to work towards a strategic sustainable project, we work with the master planner committee and student government” Witham says. He continues with, “we have 3 areas of initiatives, energy, material resource, and education + outreach. The last being our everything else bin.” Within the energy section, it is simply to reduce greenhouse gasses on campus, with the use of heat, electricity and transportation. Material resources, includes reducing waste, and creation of waaste, diverting as much as we have, alternative buckets not landfills. “Not just waste as in trash, but to think more mindfully about how to get rid or reuse these materials,” explains Witham. Then moving to education & outreach, which is about sustainability literacy. “Getting hands on projects for students no matter what major or age, we want students to be involved.” In the past our current projects have had a mix of 15 different majors.” 

Some of the initiatives that are on the USM campus would be the pollination garden, which is in Portland. “It was made to grow local flowers for maine, and be a hub for habitation for bees and butterflies, plus having less invasive species on campus, and being a mental health respite.” When it comes to public transportation, USM wants to encourage less solo driving, more bikes and usage of buses and public transportation and carpooling.  

Another thing that USM does continuously on campus that many students might not see would be composting. While many dorm buildings and garages around campus offer liquid waste recycling, composting mostly happens with our dinning hall and food services. “We used to have a larger composting scene in Woodbury, but now it is limited to dining services,” states Witham. He also explains that the food that is leftover on the conveyor belt when students drop off their plates after a meal and other food scraps and leftovers are composted. USM works directly with local Maine composting group, Garbage to Garden. Pre-pandemic, 100 tons of food waste was collected each year from USM, and once we have another dining facility in Portland 2023 that number will rise. 

While composting is preferable than liquid waste, Witham explains that the liquid waste collected on campus does make a difference. All of the trash on the USM campuses, and all of southern Maine gets sent to Ecomaine to be disposed of. At Ecomaine, they burn all trash to use for electricity. “Which is popular in Europe, and better than putting it in landfill, since they are using it for energy, but that’s not to say it does not create greenhouse gasses.” However, when trash is wet, it takes longer to burn, so more energy is needed. As well as all trash must be delivered to Ecomaine, so if trash is wet it is heavier and requires more trips to Ecomaine, burning more energy on gas, and costing the school more money. Liquid recycling ensures that trash is not wet, and reduces the energy to burn and is more cost effective. The way liquid recuong works is that all waste is collected into old oil jugs, and then poured down separately in the drain, since the waste collected is all predominantly food waste, such as ice, coffee, juice. 

Besides Witham, who is full time, everyone else who helps and works at the Office of Sustainability is a student, or graduate assistant. The office does have a program called, Eco reps, which is a student operated organization that works to continue the initiatives and projects on making USM more sustainable. It is not a club, and requires research and project implementation. It can be used as work study or course credit and internships. To be involved please email Witman at, [email protected]


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